So, this article posted on CBC News this morning caught my wife’s and my attention over our breakfast. Particularly my wife, since she is in fact a science and mathematics specialist (who incidentally can teach those in two different languages – yes, I feel intimidated, why do you ask?). For those of you who don’t want to parse the full text (although it isn’t that complicated), Canada has been downgraded slightly from its usual position on the international rankings of education system, in particular, trending downwards in math and science.
Particularly of interest was the fact that reading scores have been pretty much stable, science very slightly down, and math more significantly down. Also of note, females perform better than males (in Canada) at reading, males perform better at math, and the genders are equal in science.
Now, to go along with this, there is, of course, the typical government hedges and dry statements. Basically it all comes down to “Canada still has pretty darn good scores and our students are still very well educated, but we want to do better”. Then everyone chimes in with how that’s going to happen, regardless of experience with or in the field of education itself (in particular, the fact that many of our provincial ministers for education are not and have not been teachers is somewhat unsettling). For anyone who actually finds random facts interesting, of the provinces and territories (there are 13 total), a grand total of 2 have ministers who have actually been classroom teachers, while another 3 or so have had some experience as a public school trustee.
The article mentions several other countries as having performance above that of Canada, and so of course my wife and I thought and talked about why those particular countries might be outperforming us.
The obvious ones are spotted right away. China, Japan, and Korea are very culturally different from us, and have an education system that is brutally competitive and overloaded with immense pressure from home to do well. Students attend school for longer, have more homework, and in general are forced to work much harder for their success than in Canada. There’s very little left to say there – when the entire culture values the high standards of performance, students meet them.
Secondly, our ‘traditional’ competitor, a country that had been at the very top until recently – Finland. This is the most interesting one to me, because I’ll regularly talk about how good Finland is at education and people say something to the effect of “Why can’t we be that good?”.
The answer is very simple – we don’t value education (as a culture) to the same extent.
You can see this in the very foundations of how Finland’s system works. I don’t know all of the specifics, but here is an excellent interview from last year with an education expert from Finland. Also, their Wikipedia entries seem overall fairly reliable to me, so hit that one up as well. The key is that Finland trusts its teachers, and its teachers are exceptional teachers.
If you want to be a teacher in Finland, you probably need a Master’s degree. Many teacher prep programs have acceptance rates of 10% or lower. That’s like medical school. Teachers in Finland are hand-picked for their beneficial qualities as teachers, and trained rigorously for years in their craft. Once they graduate, they are going to be given autonomy to exercise those skills: local principals hire and fire their staff, and within a very general framework, schools can customize and create their own curriculum so teachers are teaching both what they are good at and know well, in addition to the looser national standards.
There’s a commonality to the Finnish and Eastern (sorry for the west-centric terminology) system, which is that they don’t believe in a ‘good enough’. If you get a 70 in Japan, you’re not getting a job, so you’d better bust your butt to improve. If you want to be a teacher in Finland, you need to be at the very top of your career path. In Canada, we have this problem not only in schools, but particularly in the home.
This is something I see all the time. Billy’s parents come in for a parent teacher interview and the conversation turns to his English mark, which is ‘passing’, but isn’t great (let’s say 67 percent). I express concerns, the parents don’t share them. When Billy gets 65 on his next test and I express privately to him that I think he’s capable of better, he shrugs it off and says “Meh, I didn’t fail. It’s good.”
Now I know for a fact that if I’d come home with a 65 on anything, my parents would have stepped in to find out what everyone could do to help that improve. I am just as sure of the fact that the non-concern I see with students about their learning flows back from the home, as my family life impacted my schooling. It’s a common phenomenon that my wife and I chuckle about which is that the parents who most consistently make contact with you and come in for checkups are the ones you don’t really need to talk to – their kids are busy scoring 90 on everything they touch, sometimes even 100. But it really shows where your values lie.
If we want to keep the education system in Canada doing well (and make no mistake, we do get a good education in Canada), we need to shift some values. More people need to stand up and say that ‘good enough’ is not in fact ‘good enough’. Good enough gets you beat to space by the Soviets. Good enough gets you zero scholarships. Good enough means you just lost that job interview to the person who really buckled down for it.
As a musician, I don’t want the audience to say, “Well, that was good enough”. I want an audience that can’t tell me how amazing that was because they’re crying tears of joy (okay, maybe that is a pipe dream that probably won’t ever come true but I still want it because feelings). Don’t settle. Not just for your education, but for everything. It’s not ‘good enough’ if you haven’t mastered it yet.
“Politics has lost its attraction to a lot of people.”
This is something that former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, one of the most respected politicians and statespersons in Canadian history, said during an interview on a CBC Radio program “Q”, a couple of weeks ago. The interview (which starts at about 17:00 or so) is well worth checking out:
For anyone who hasn’t been reading between the lines of my various posts that deal with politics, public policy, and rights issues, I’m a pretty liberal kind of guy. I like my healthcare and education heavily funded, my human rights as complete as possible. As such, the word ‘conservative’ in politics, particularly Canadian politics, tends to signal me to be a little bit wary. However, I have always enjoyed listening to Joe Clark. He’s a self-described ‘Red Tory’ which is a way of saying something along the lines of: “I’m a bit on the right/conservative but I hedge everything towards the centre for the greater good.”
This interview serves up some real gems that I think hold immense value to how we deal with each other as societies. Here are a few of my favourites…
“Our tone is now almost adolescent…” – Clark on how Canada is acting lately in international circles.
Here, he was referring to the increasing tendency to loudly proclaim things without doing an incredible amount. As an elaboration on this, I would argue that this typifies a great deal of the international wrangling I read about in the news. Nations sniping at each other over agreements, refusing flat out to go along with anything that isn’t looking out for Number One… the list can go on.
Of course, you can also make this argument about many people as a whole. “It’s not fair that [x] happened”, “It’s the economy’s fault, not mine”, and a host of other complaints reflect, at least in the developed world, a very entitled populace. As a teacher this definitely rubs me the wrong way, as I try to do my best to instill a sense of responsibility and maturity in my students, and sometimes have the way blocked by adults who address some scenarios like it was recess and someone else is taking ‘their’ blocks which are really the school’s blocks, and a tantrum develops.
“The purpose of foreign policy is to encourage as much stability as possible in the world.” … ”[Our] national interest… depends a great deal on having a world that works.” – Clark on the purpose and end goals of national foreign policy.
This really hit home for me. I studied Political Science as a minor in university, and when looking at International Relations, it was all framed by this question of national interest. Clark’s take on this is part of the reason I respect him so highly in spite of our political differences (well, that and the fact that he is old enough to be my grandfather). He managed to crystallize in a couple of simple sentences why I feel there’s so much tension and struggle in the world.
Just like in a classroom when you have Billy complaining that the questions are too difficult and Sally complaining that she is bored, you have nations that aren’t thinking of the bigger picture. Billy might find the questions hard, but their purpose is to be hard, to stretch his mental muscles and leave him a more complete understanding of the world and his own abilities. Sally might be bored for a variety of reasons, but if boredom strikes, one has to learn how to fight through it and discipline the mind to complete the required tasks anyways. Nothing can be 100% interesting all the time, and the world does not care one fig for your boredom if you refuse to do an essential task for such a subjective reason.
I sometimes chuckle to myself at the similarity of teenaged students to kindergarten students. Now, I can make the comparison even broader and wonder at the kindergarten-type behaviour of national policy-makers.
This is all conditional, and more than a little tongue-in-cheek, of course. The issues that these people deal with are incredibly complex, and determine the well-being of many more people than I touch in a day with my teaching. But I can wish that a few more of them saw the world like the Right Honourable Joe Clark.
Thanks for a great interview, Mr. Clark, and I am very grateful for your continued efforts to make the world that little tiny bit better, and help us all to learn from your past.
I haven’t posted in a long time. Mostly it’s because of this feeling of being at loose ends, in limbo – in a sort of purgatory, if you will.
The job market for teachers where I live is very tough right now. Funding at the provincial level that trickles down to the local districts was cut yet again at the end of last year, and I was one of the victims of said funding cuts (almost all ‘temporary’ teaching contracts get the same treatment whenever it looks like money is tight). It’s not really anything I can blame anybody in particular for – you need to pay teachers, and hard choices that no one likes get made in that sort of situation.
So, in absence of job prospects, what do you do with your life?
There are short and easy answers, fairly typical answers, things like: “Take your resume around to everybody you can; catch up on sleep; play some videogames in some of your spare time that isn’t spent job-hunting; etc.”. For me as a musician as well as teacher, I end up doing things like musical theatre, any gigs I can lay my hands on, and substitute teaching.
I’ve spoken a fair bit before I got hired onto a temporary contract about subbing, but it’s different going back to that when you’ve had a taste of what it’s like to be in the classroom all the time. In particular, one day stood out for me earlier in this school year – I went back for a day of teaching at the school I had worked at all the previous year. It was nice to see students I knew and cherished again, but it also made my stomach roil and my soul hurt – these are students I love and don’t get to see almost ever anymore. It’s one of those dull aches that I assume are similar to having a separation from a partner, children, or beloved pet. I didn’t, and don’t, like it.
You also fall behind your peers. For anyone who isn’t a teacher and/or doesn’t know exactly what teachers do with those random Fridays off that we get occasionally, in Canada teachers are obligated to work together and continually try to improve their practice. These days are often linked by thematic ideas: working on classroom communities, teaching using acting, techniques to improve reading acquisition skills, etc. Well, I don’t get to do any of that when I’m just a substitute teacher. And as I am no longer in a full-time university program, I don’t get the same opportunities to develop my knowledge and practice, both of which are things that can be very helpful in obtaining the next job that comes along.
So what I have decided to do is read some books and articles, trying to put myself in a position where maybe I have a slightly unique set of teacher knowledge to bring to the table at my next interview. I am also going to review those books on here for any of you that are interested in learning, teaching, behaviour, or neuroscience (books I choose about learning tend to have strong brain-research correlations).
Maybe then I can get out of Dante’s second book.
Right now I’m experiencing my first Teacher’s Convention in my current district (last year I attended a different district’s Convention). For those not in the know, Convention is when as many teachers as possible in your area get together and attend a variety of sessions ideally geared towards improving your practice. Basically it’s job training.
You find a wide range of opinions on Convention. Most people grump a little bit at the necessity of spending a lot of time in sessions they’re not sure will help them. Some people find a few great sessions that give you a great set of strategies to immediately help in the classroom. And a few always manage to have no fun at all, totally feeling like there’s no point to their being there.
Strangely, I found myself dreading it this year.
For those people who don’t know me, I’m usually the guy that is gung-ho for the new and cool strategies, excited to listen to someone explaining something I don’t yet fully understand about teaching. But this year I found myself not being that person coming up to today.
Part of my issue with today is my chosen specialization. Believe it or not, there’s not a great preponderance of music teachers out there (I know, I’ll give you all a second to sit down and recover from the shock). As such, conventions like this are not exactly confronted with a mountain of incentives to offer sessions exclusively targeted at music teachers, especially specialized music teachers such as band (myself included).
It’s not that I won’t find anything to do that will help me. I had a very nice session on website design today and got some valuable work done on my school-related blog that I keep trying to develop with my students. There was another session related to brain engagement that was fascinating and did in fact give me a few great ideas for classroom techniques.
But not having anything that directly applies to my discipline leaves me feeling a bit… left out. I know it’s not by intention. The trouble is that if someone like myself inquires as to the possibilities of getting a dedicated band session, the answer is invariably, “Great! Why don’t you come up with something and we’ll give you a spot!” (or some variation thereof, the details waver depending on the area, time, and space available)
While discussing this phenomenon with a colleague, I said that what I wanted was not to pontificate to a room of people (cue the realization of situational irony based on what I’m doing right now), but to have someone much more experienced than I am come and show me something about my profession I don’t already know. My colleague shot back with, “Well, I’d be more interested in hearing ‘What A First-Year Band Teacher Learned in University’ than another session on how to engage special needs students!”
This floored me. Not that turning down a session on special needs, or computers, or anything was a big shock because some people aren’t called to work in those fields. But the idea that I had something that could be so interesting that 5-10 of my colleagues would come in, sit down, and listen/take notes to my inexperienced experiences was a shift for me.
I’ve always been good at what I set my mind to. But a large part of my development as both an artist and a teacher has been to set any ego and sense of myself as ‘the best’ at something in the background, so I get the absolute most benefit out of any situation without my self-worth getting in the way.
I think in large part that’s the best thing about this sort of professional development: taking things you already have and applying them in new ways. None of the techniques I’m going to learn in these sessions are something I can’t figure out on my own using my own skills and lots of time/hard work. But the encouragement of a better-experienced person goes a long way towards making that job easier for me. And I think I have to realize that I can do that for others too.
It’s taken me a large chunk of a day to come to terms with what I want to write here, but like many people right now, I have to talk about it in some way just to deal with it.
Everyone has heard by now of the murders of 20 children and more adults and teachers in Connecticut. Everyone is equally horrified, from the President of the United States, to our Canadian Prime Minister, to the oldest grandparent in the most isolated of our rural Canadian villages. I share all of that horror.
As a teacher, of course, I have a particular terror, disgust, and sorrow at this sort of event. My administrator actually was the one who first alerted staff members at my school that this terrible event had happened. It was particularly fresh in his and our minds because we had just had a lockdown drill the day before.
The scary thing when I was reading the news reports was the fact that, based on what little information was there, most teachers at the school had reacted fairly well and professionally like you are supposed to in a lockdown situation. They had gathered students in corners and away from windows and doors as soon as the emergency became clear. And yet, 20 children lie dead today.
I don’t care to talk about the person who decided to murder more than 20 people, most of them children. I also don’t want to intrude on the grief of anyone who is particularly close to a senseless tragedy like this one. I finally decided that what I wanted to talk about was words. What a particular set of them mean about the situation we find ourselves in today. These are a set of words that should not exist.
I know that those two words are normal, everyday English terms. A noun indicating a place of learning for young people, and a verb meaning the act of firing some sort of projectile at high speeds. But their strict, literal meanings pale beside the terrifying reality of the expression entire.
The fact that in our society, we have a two-word term explicitly designed to express a single reality of a person or persons walking into a school and using firearms to injure or kill defenseless children and teachers is horrific. The mere substance of this expression would tell the most skeptical alien observer that in our society, the act of someone committing murder by firearms in a school is common enough to warrant its own expression. I can think of no worse indictment of the way we handle weapons or the way in which humans are capable of violence.
Now, some might argue that the term is merely descriptive, but if we were searching for a descriptive term, we would probably say something like “the shooting that occurred in a school”. Of course, in proper English grammar, the term ‘school shooting’ should mean that someone was shooting an entire school (building), not the innocents within. But we all know that that is not the meaning, that those two words conjure up a nightmare scenario of pain and fear.
My anger and sorrow are all twisted up with each other right now as I hear more and more on the news. There are many news pundits and politicians and special interest groups all talking about what sort of action needs to be taken. Some people continue to say that today, when the grief is still fresh, is not a time to open debates on gun control or related matters. I echo the sentiments I’ve heard from several corners: today is not the day. The day for that was after Virginia Tech, after Colombine, after Taber, after any of the numerous tragedies with this disgusting label of ‘school shooting’. It’s already too late for the children murdered in Connecticut, and it’s too late for that argument; what matters is stopping it from happening again, not posturing over rights and legal intricacies. What matters is making sure that we have done our best to eliminate the need for parents to lose children to a murderer in a school, to eliminate the expression ‘school shooting’ from its necessary niche.
I wish profoundly that there was no need in our language for that particular expression. I wish that 20 children who now will never get their Christmas with the family or grow up to change the world did not have to die at the hands of a killer. Mostly, I just… wish.
I’d like to finish by relating a story that helps me articulate how I feel about my students if anything like this were to happen to me. It’s human nature to imagine yourself in this situation, and my imagination quails at the task, so I latch on to other experiences to help me work it out. It isn’t my story, just one that a friend of mine who also is a teacher told me about a lockdown at their school (obviously, all identities and locations are not mentioned here):
The school goes into lockdown. As it transpires, there is a question of whether or not there is an actual threat to the school, so this is not a drill. The students are all gathered and hidden, the doors locked, and the lights turned off. No one is quite sure what is going on.
Then, a young girl says to my friend, “Miss, if they break in here, I’m going to die.”
My friend looks at her and says, now quite emotional, “Honey, they have to get through me first.”
Thankfully, within an hour or so, it was resolved, and everyone got their happy ending, but the situation and conversation stuck with my friend, and it resonates deeply with how I feel about my job.
As sad as yesterday’s events were, let us also remember today the courage and swift action of the teachers in the school, as well as the police, that saved the lives of children. Because when it comes right down to it, they made the same choice and affirmation that my friend did, and that I would in that situation.
I love these kids, and if something ever happens, it’s not going to happen without me doing everything that I can to make them safe. Because I want a world where there doesn’t have to be a term of ‘school shooting’. I want that for any kids that I will have, and I want that for every single student that walks into my classroom.
All of my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Newtown, Connecticut. I cannot imagine the depth of their agony.
Today, the world of music, and particularly jazz, has suffered a profound loss. Dave Brubeck died today.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who will be writing an obituary or memory today. Dave Brubeck was one of the most influential artists to ever grace jazz music, and I feel fairly safe in saying that we will not see his like very soon again, or perhaps ever.
When I was younger and beginning my jazz experience, a relative gave me a fantastic set of CDs: Ken Burns “Jazz” collection, 5 CDs with some of the most classic recordings ever made. Right in the middle of disc 4, I hit “Take Five”. I was blown away. My natural inclination when I listen to music is to move or conduct along with it (you only have to ask my long-suffering wife about how much of an embarrassment I can be when I’m really enjoying a song, particularly in public).
But here was a song that I couldn’t easily fit to that sort of thing. I was 13 years old, and the concept of jazz itself was just starting to percolate through to my brain, let alone the idea of there being a viable 5/4 pattern.
Yet somehow it was catchy, in spite of the strangeness. Not catchy in the way that a modern, electro-synthesized pop song is catchy, with stale chord patterns and dumbed-down rhythmic ostinati capable of easy reproduction by any prospective listener. Catchy in a mysterious way, a song that leaves you trying to grasp at the fleeting echoes of recognition you get from a well-constructed tune, while still being unable to articulate the specifics. A song that displays talent, artistry, and technical mastery of one’s craft.
The solos, particularly Morello’s tasteful, rhythmically challenging drums, were another revelation. The internal sense of rhythm and melody required to generate the sort of polyrhythmic patterns that 5/4 generates spoke to me in an inspirational way, something to aspire towards.
From that moment on, I hunted down more Brubeck recordings, with some of my favourites being the ones that were strangest in conception or furthest from what one might call the ‘standards’. “Unsquare Dance”, from the album “Time Further Out”, never fails to put a smile of wonder on my face as the Quartet dances through shifting rhythms in a 7/4 feel that drives listeners insane with the tantalizing closeness to the swaddling comfort of 4/4 while being resolutely it’s own strange space.
Brubeck’s piano playing was always filled with emotion and technical mastery. Countless concerts over a career that spanned more than 6 decades (quite the milestone in jazz music) reinforced his well-deserved reputation as one of the all-time greats in the genre. He performed and created music for many celebrities and events, including the Pope’s 1987 visit to San Francisco. His sons followed him into music, with many well-deserved accolades to their names as well.
Dave Brubeck cannot be replaced or equalled. He was his own person who loved his art and gave everything he had to it. What other kind of character could keep up with concerts and tours well into his 8th decade of life? My life is not the only one that Brubeck’s tireless efforts made a mark on, and I am not the only one saddened by his passing.
But amidst the sadness, I can’t deny that Dave Brubeck worked extremely hard, and that work made the world a better place. Our world is better for having had his life in it. And like anyone else, he deserves to rest and have some time off from the magnificent efforts in his life, free of pain and worry.
Thanks, Dave. Rest in peace.